Never has the simple tense of a verb revealed so much about a political party—or seemed so plainly out of touch with reality.
“It was awful,” Larry Kudlow, President Donald Trump’s chief economic adviser, said tonight during his brief remarks to the Republican National Convention. He was referring, of course, to the coronavirus pandemic—the one that came and went earlier this year, the one that’s over, the one that America, under Trump’s leadership, decisively defeated and consigned to history. “Health and economic impacts were tragic,” Kudlow said of that pandemic. “Hardship and heartbreak were everywhere.”
If the pandemic were truly in the past, however, Kudlow would have been delivering that message to a packed, roaring crowd at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. Instead, Kudlow was speaking from a wood-paneled room at his home in Redding, Connecticut—a rural community with a population of fewer than 10,000 in one of the few states that has brought the coronavirus outbreak under control. He introduced himself as someone familiar to viewers who have seen him frequently “on TV and radio,” but so too was the tableau: a talking head surrounded by bookshelves and the comfort of a home that is not safe to leave.
The myth that Trump vanquished COVID-19 and launched the nation into what Kudlow called a “V-shaped economic recovery” is central to the president’s reelection pitch, and it’s been a theme of the convention so far. That gobsmacking framing is belied by the 1,147 Americans who died from the disease today alone, by the 36,679 who tested positive for it, and by the huge swaths of the country where the virus’s uncontrolled spread has closed schools and businesses alike.
But this entire week, the contradiction at the heart of the GOP’s assertions about the virus is even more obvious: It’s apparent in just about every image viewers see of the convention. Kudlow appeared from his home, and so did Trump, who made his appearances from the White House in what was simultaneously a bow to the reality of the pandemic as well as a blatant use of a government building for political campaigning. The RNC tried to re-create the backdrop of a convention at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., with speakers appearing at a podium in front of a bank of American flags. But their remarks were almost all taped, and the lack of an applauding audience was glaring for a few of them.
Kudlow’s rosy speech was just one small example of how Republicans have tried to downplay, if not outright erase, the public consciousness of the pandemic during the convention. Until first lady Melania Trump devoted the opening of her speech to the pandemic—even referring to it in the present tense, notably—the virus received only glancing mentions during most of the speeches, and those speakers who did allude to it spoke, as Kudlow did, of recovery more than they did of an ongoing crisis. Masks were nowhere to be found—not on any of the speakers, nor on Trump or any of the varied people he appeared with, in close contact, at the White House.
The organizers’ approach was undoubtedly a reflection of the president himself, who quickly grew tired of the pandemic and has chafed at the restrictions it has placed on him. Trump has leaned on governors to reopen their states faster than public-health experts have recommended, and he repeatedly makes baseless predictions that the virus will “go away” on its own. He tried to restart his signature rallies, but called them off when his campaign couldn’t come close to filling an arena in Oklahoma in June.
In some ways, the convention has felt like an event frozen in time—perhaps February 2020—as speakers laud a booming national economy that no longer exists. At other points, like during Kudlow’s remarks, an alternative picture seemed to emerge—one in which time has sped up, and the virus is no longer a threat.
Trump is down in the polls, and the public overwhelmingly disapproves of his response to the pandemic. He seems to be making a risky bet that in a mere two months, reality will catch up to his vision of a cured America, and the virus he has wished away will not be a present-tense part of voters’ lives. But tonight, the dissonance between how the president and his advisers see this pandemic and how it continues to ravage the country was apparent in more than the slippage of tenses or a grisly set of statistics: It was inherent in the virtual convention itself.